The Battle for New Orleans Public Schools

Will there be a second line for public schools in New Orleans? The school system has set a course to convert entirely to charter schools, raising fears among parents that they will lose their say in their children's education.

The McDonogh No. 35 High School band performs as the Krewe of Pygmalion rolls through the Uptown area of New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 9, 2007. Pygmalion is one of the first major parades of the carnival season. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story said that less than half of the teachers in New Orleans are black, when the number is 50.7 percent. The story also incorrectly stated that McDonogh 35 had been taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina. The story also stated that last year’s change in the way school performance is measured makes it difficult to compare year-to-year school results. The state issued scores for the 2017-2018 school year based both on the new method and the previous method. However, the number of changes to the way the measure is calculated over the years since Katrina does present challenges in making year-over-year analyses.

Like many New Orleans parents, Ashana Bigard’s memory still stings from of the state of Louisiana taking over New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, Bigard became an activist for traditional public schools. Thousands of teachers were summarily fired — 71 percent of them black in a majority-black city. Now, 2018 data from Tulane University’s Cowen Institute shows that citywide, 50.7 percent of teachers were black; and in Orleans Parish School Board schools, 49.7 percent of the teachers were black. While local control returned in July 2018, with it came the institutionalizing of charter schools´ control over nearly all aspects of school operations.

These and other painful school experiences helped pack a school board meeting last month. Approximately 200 people spilled out into hallways and an overflow room. Most objected to plans to convert a hallowed high school, McDonogh 35, to a charter-school model. The die was already cast, however — under authority granted as part of the restoration of local control, the superintendent of New Orleans public schools had already decided that the school would be converted, and the Orleans Public School Board voted 5-2 to award a contract to wind it down. McDonogh 35 is one of two remaining schools the Orleans Parish School Board is running directly — the other, Cypress Academy, is currently slated to close at the end of this academic year.

“You had all these parents come together and pretty much have shown up at every board meeting,” Bigard says. Yet in spite of their participation, Bigard argues people feel their voices have been “muted.”

Alumni see converting McDonogh 35 to a charter school as inflicting a wound. The school was founded in 1917 as the first public high school in the state for black children. New Orleans luminaries such as former Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial and Joan Bernard Armstrong, the first woman elected judge in Louisiana and the first African-American to head the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals count among the school’s alumni. The school had an outstanding record until the early aughts but went into decline after Katrina — when its selective admissions system was eliminated under state management. By 2017, the state ranked it as a “D” school.

While it was a local vote, public-school parents and advocates are well aware of how their schools and city have been used as a national laboratory, and how public-school board members’ campaigns have attracted attention well beyond New Orleans.

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ school-board elections have become targets for national political donors, according to Sarah Reckhow of Michigan State University. While teachers unions’ are also making campaign contributions, Reckhow’s research found that several of major donors to victorious Orleans Public School Board candidates are on the boards of major charter school organizations or education non-profits such as Teach for America, KIPP Charter Schools, and Stand for Children. Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, is a prominent charter-school advocate who has also donated in New Orleans.

“We feel fairly confident that there is a network here, that we’re looking at a group of people where the decision to give to these candidates wasn’t coming in total isolation, all independently coming to the decision to give to the exact same candidates in the exact same cities — it was coordinated,” Reckhow says.

The phenomenon extended to each of the four districts covered in Reckhow’s study: Los Angeles, Denver, Bridgeport, and New Orleans.

“[Charter school network board members] tend to be people who are big campaign contributors,” Reckhow says. “It’s part of a trend in American politics broadly of very rich people making a larger and larger share of the campaign contributions in elections.”

The law that brought New Orleans schools back under the local school board´s jurisdiction also handed charter schools autonomy over financial, human resources, curricula, materials and programming. Charter school board members aren´t elected — as the district´s board members are — and although charter school board meetings are required to comply with state open meeting laws, they don´t consistently do so. This lack of public accountability raises red flags for parents like Bigard.

Recognizing widespread concerns about charter schools and communities of color, in 2016, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a moratorium on charter school creation. It issued a report in 2017, stating: “While high quality, accountable and accessible charters can contribute to educational opportunity, by themselves, even the best charters are not a substitute for more stable, adequate and equitable investments in public education in the communities that serve our children.”

Charter school proponents often argue it’s the poor quality of public schools that justifies a large-scale shift to the charter model. The New Orleans public school system overall ranked next to last among Louisiana’s schools. The city’s public schools disproportionately served low-income, African-American children. Ninety-four percent of the city’s schoolchildren were African-American, and nearly three quarters qualified for free and reduced-cost lunches.

New Orleans parents, however, aren’t buying that charter schools are the answer.

“It wasn’t as horrible as [charter school proponents] try to make it seem,” says Armtrice Cowart, of the city’s public schools before Katrina. Cowart is a McDonogh 35 alumna who spoke at the December school board meeting.

“We had great teachers,” she says. “We had great things happening in our schools. What we didn’t have, honestly, was the resources and the money that these charter schools and charter boards were getting after Katrina.”

Research by the Educational Research Alliance found that academic achievement in New Orleans improved substantially after the takeover and mass conversion to charter schools. Still, state school ratings showed the city on a three-year slide prior to 2018. (That year, the grading system changed, making it difficult to compare with previous years.) Nonetheless, The Lens, a local investigative news outlet, reported that 15 schools received failing grades while 18 earned “D” grades. Outcomes like these have prompted much debate in New Orleans around educational models.

More broadly, research has found that charter schools aren´t necessarily better than their traditional public counterparts. A 2015 study issued by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes examined 41 school districts and found that charter students in 26 cities outperformed their traditional school peers in math. But in 11 urban areas, charter students did worse in math. There were similar findings for reading scores.

For Andre Perry, who studied education in New Orleans for years after Katrina, the charter model reflects an ideological preference more than it does an educational strategy. “Many of the funders [of charter schools] happen to be corporate elites who simply don’t believe in government,” he says. “They put collectively billions of dollars into breaking up school districts, breaking up centers of black power.”

Examining this power shift from an elected, publicly accountable system to one that is not elected, a Tulane University researcher, Celeste Lay, found that New Orleans’ charter school boards tend not to reflect the communities they serve.

“We found that whites are over-represented both compared to the city’s population and compared to the elected [public school] board,” Lay says.

Lay’s research found that the majority of New Orleans charter school board members are men and tend to be highly educated and upper income. The study also found that only eight percent of charter-school board members have experience working in education as teachers or administrators.

Although the boards don’t run the schools themselves, they do make decisions that affect school management. “Those decisions are largely being led by affluent, white individuals whose kids are not for the most part in public schools in New Orleans,” Lay says.

Another issue raised by the research is that roughly a third of local charter school boards don’t provide enough details about their scheduled meetings for the public to be able to attend — a violation of state regulations.

For parents like Cowart and Bigard, representation in school governance is about more than just test scores — it also has to do with culture.

“[Charter schools] have embedded the criminal code in the disciplinary code. Disruption of a school process is a criminal act. That’s subjective,” Bigard says.

Bigard tells of one student who was chronically tardy and was remanded to municipal court. “Nobody had bothered to ask her what was going on in her life,” she says. “Her mother had had a mental breakdown, so they went to live with her grandmother. She had passed out three times at school. She was taking medication, so she was sleeping late.”

Cowart has two children in New Orleans charter schools, and her experience is uneven. She feels that the high school her elder daughter attends, although it is a charter school, still carries local culture. But her younger daughter attends a school where Cowart feels the children are stifled by rules such as having to walk between classes in single file with their hands by their sides. She sees this kind of discipline as “micromanaging,” and she takes issue with the school’s approach to academics as well.

“It doesn’t help that the only thing curriculum-wise that they’re teaching them is like a proxy to the test. Really, the curriculum that they’re teaching is ACT prep,” Cowart says.

Cowart also blames a lack of stability as one of the obstacles affecting student performance. The saga of Cypress Academy offers a prime example of the kind of instability students, families and educators have had to deal with. Two days before graduation last year, parents were told the charter school would be closing. The superintendent stepped in and reassured parents the district would run the school for another two years. A few months later, he flip-flopped and bumped up the school’s closure, now set for the end of the current academic school year.

“[Cypress] wasn’t being closed as a failing school,” says Abram Shalom Himelstein, whose daughter attended Cypress. “It was being closed as a financially mismanaged school, and the chief thing they were doing wrong was giving away a lot of great education to a bunch of public-school kids.”

In Himelstein’s view, the district’s decision reflects misguided priorities. “[Cypress] missed its budget by about two percent, and rather than provide a year of stability, [the school district] chose to destroy the community,” Himelstein says.

Tensions like this across the district have led some to begin organizing a recall of school board members, according to Cowart.

Ben Kleban is one of the Orleans Parish School Board members whom Cowart says is being targeted for recall. For his part, Kleban acknowledges that betrayals like Cypress’ closure have affected relations around education.

“There’s a long history of how the community has been engaged or how they have not been engaged,” Kleban says. “The lack of trust and resentment in the room didn’t happen overnight — and was brewing before [the school board] took over management of all the schools.”

Asked about the fate of McDonogh 35, Kleban was blunt. “The district has, over the past few years, been directly responsible for the academic performance of the school, and I think everyone needs to acknowledge the district has failed at that endeavor and failed on multiple different kinds of turnaround strategies,” he says. “It seems reasonable and understandable that there would be members of the public in the room expressing their concern and lack of approval for that. And it seems reasonable to wonder whether this latest turnaround strategy is really going to work.”

The fact that charters continue to expand in New Orleans regardless of public sentiment, Kleban says, has contributed to a sense among some that the school system is interrupting “the intention of local democracy.”

The superintendent of schools, Henderson Lewis, Jr., declined Next City’s request for an interview.

Comments from another board member, Nolan Marshall, Jr., hint at the possibility of changing direction. Marshall mentioned at the December board meeting that it might be possible for some schools to return to local control. In a phone interview, however, he explains that he sees that option primarily for charter schools that have failed and that the district needs to take over. (At the December meeting, Marshall voted against awarding a contract to wind-down McDonogh 35. Another board member, Ethan Ashley, who voted in favor of awarding the contract, did not respond to email requesting an interview.)

In the years since the state takeover, New Orleanians decried school issues such as denying admission and support to special ed students, lack of administrative transparency and suspending lower-performing, challenging students. According to Cowart and Bigard, however, they’d rather take their concerns to a local, elected school board than to an assortment of private, unelected charter boards.

Marshall hopes that the conversation can shift its focus to student outcomes, as opposed to the current microscope on governance.

“I’m not a proponent of basing everything we do on governance and the governance structure, we can argue about that forever,” Marshall says. “What we have to do is change the focus to what do these children need to succeed and talk about that as much as we talk about governance.”

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Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.

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Tags: new orleanseducationcharter schools

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